HANNAH Bardell is back at Number 24 and the memories have started. She remembers playing in the lane outside, belting up and down on her bike. She remembers hanging out at the skate park and the football pitch. And she remembers parties with her friends and her mum playing the piano at Christmas. She looks round and takes it all in. “I’m feeling quite emotional,” she says.

The house itself is a neat 1960s council semi-detached with a little porch and a line of shrubs out front. Hannah grew up here with her brother and her mum and it was tough at times, she says. Her mother, who was a social worker, didn’t have a lot of money.

There was also a lot of poverty in the streets around her; Hannah remembers friends at her school who were really struggling. But she also recalls the freedom she enjoyed, the open spaces. Livingston was a happy place for her, she says.

Livingston is also where Hannah, who’s 38 now, discovered her political values. In the 80s, her granny would shout at the telly whenever Margaret Thatcher was on.

Her mother fought against the closure of the local high school, forced through by the Labour council, and Hannah remembers going to some of the protests when she was a girl and holding the placards. Some 30 years later, the same beliefs have led her to where she is now: the MP for the town where she grew up.

And now, a lot of that political energy is being turned to a new mission: the campaign to turn Livingston from a town into a city.

In all, 39 parts of the UK – including eight in Scotland – have applied to win the title in a competition being run by the UK Government to mark the Queen’s Platinum jubilee. Including Livingston, the Scottish places that have applied are, Dumfries, Dunfermline, Elgin, Greenock, Oban, St Andrews and most curiously, the whole of South Ayrshire. In the end, three places in the UK will be granted the status and become a city.

What makes the competition a little bit tricky is that there isn’t really an absolute definition of what a city is.

To most of us, the word “city” probably means a big, densely-populated urban area, but some British cities are no bigger than your average town. Some people also assume you need to have a cathedral or a university to become a city, but that isn’t the case either. In fact, what defines a city is a little unclear and that means the competition to become the next one could be anyone’s game.

For Hannah Bardell, winning the competition for Livingston would be the logical next step in the story of her community. Originally part of the 19th century boom in shale mining, the villages and clachans of the area were selected as the site of one of the new towns of the 1960s. The aim was to help ease the overcrowding in Glasgow and thousands moved out, including Hannah’s grandparents.

“People were moving from slum conditions,” she says, “and in Livingston my grandparents had a front and back door, a garden and an inside toilet and it was a fresh start.”

Bardell’s argument for turning Livingston from a new town into a city touches on a number of issues – some practical, some emotional, and some which leave her a little torn.

One of the factors, she says, is the practical and commercial one. Her area has suffered a number of closures and shutdowns over the years – including, famously the Golden Wonder factory in the 80s (Hannah and her mother still refuse to eat them).

When we meet, Bardell has also just finished helping to negotiate a Scottish Government deal to save the local Covid vaccine manufacturer Valneva. Quite simply, she hopes city status will help attract and keep firms that can provide jobs.

She also hopes that, as well as attracting more investment, city status could help ease the poverty which she has witnessed her whole life. Her mother worked as a social worker during the heroin explosion of the 80s and 90s and money was tight.

“We struggled,” she says. “My mum had a good job but this was before the days of proper child benefit.”

As a teenager, Bardell also saw the side effects of poverty. “You just hung about and drank,” she says. “I saw stuff and experienced stuff that meant I was pretty street-wise. There were kids doing stuff that they definitely shouldn’t have.”

She tells me about a local shop that was packed with alcopops, but she also remembers the youth club where she got involved with local theatre. Maybe there could be more of that in a city, she says.

Bardell says the deprivation in Livingston, as well as the sometimes brutal 60s design, has also led to something of an image problem for the town and she’s hopeful that city status could help to change that. Some of it is good-natured banter – the jokes about all the roundabouts for example.

“I made a joke once,” she says, “that in London you’re never more than a few feet from a rat, and in Livingston you’re never more than a few feet from a roundabout.” But she also tells me how angry she got when someone called the town a sh*t-hole to her face. She was angry, she says, because it’s not. She’s proud of it.

To prove her point, Bardell shows me some of the sights of the town and I can see how it’s changing as well as the changes that are still needed.

We walk through one of the underpasses that were unpopular for a long time but have been given a makeover with street art. We pop into the skatepark and talk about the theatre and the shopping mall and we walk down Hannah’s old street where her mum lived for 34 years.

There’s good social housing here; people working in the public sector can still afford to buy or rent. But Hannah herself admits that it may lack the things that anchor other communities, like an established high street or a long history.

“I think we’ve struggled with our identity partly because we are a new town,” she says. But perhaps becoming a city could help, she says. The word she uses is “place-making”.

All of these factors make Livingston one of the most interesting bids for city status – it’s the only new town that’s applied – but it shares some of the same issues of the other bidders, particularly the need to attract visitors and investment.

One of the most interesting bids is South Ayrshire which might have been expected to apply as Ayr but has applied as the whole region taking in Troon, Maybole and the rural areas. It’s a bid that really does question what a city is and what it could be in the future.

I speak to one of the people behind the bid, Maybole councillor William Grant, and one of the main planks of his campaign is, in a way, the exact opposite of Livingston’s.

He tells me about the ancient history of South Ayrshire: William Wallace held his first parliament here and it has links with Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Burns of course. Grant believes the area can be a greater draw for tourists but that they tend to land in Edinburgh or Glasgow and head north. City status for South Ayrshire could just change that, he says.

In other ways, South Ayrshire is applying for city status because it faces exactly the same problems as Livingston and, like Hannah Bardell, William Grant has felt them personally.

He grew up in village of Crosshill, a few miles from Maybole, and worked as a engineer in heavy transport and electronics. But twice, the companies he worked for went to the wall and he faced redundancy and it’s a familiar problem across Ayrshire: much of the industry that provided most of the jobs has gone.

The problem has meant that a lot of young people leave Ayrshire and never come back and William Grant thinks city status could help reverse that.

“What happens is that people go to university, they see what a city is like and they don’t come back,” he says.

“So it’s important we have the housing in place for younger people. I want young people to have the ability to stay in this area so there also need to be jobs. The housing is affordable – there are expensive areas but some are not.”

Grant believes city status would help draw in the kind of investment needed to tackle some of these problems.

So how does he rate the chances of winning? The decision is officially in the gift of the Queen but will be made by a panel established by the UK government which includes staff from the Scottish Office as well as independent voices from the heritage and museums sector and I ask Grant if he thinks applying as a region rather than an urban area will reduce the chances of winning.

“No, I don’t think so,” he says. “There might be someone there who says ‘oh wait a minute, why has South Ayrshire put it in for it?’ and they might take a closer interest because of that and say why are they doing it? And if they look at what we’ve said there are a lot of positives in it.”

For Hannah Bardell as an SNP politician, the fact that the city status is in the gift of the Queen and the UK government and that applicants are asked to include details of their town’s royal connections, did give her pause for thought.

“It did a wee bit,” she says. “There’s part of me that feels uncomfortable about that and I don’t think a lot of people in the community would necessarily feel connected to that.”

However, her vision of Livingston as a city includes a possible future as a city in an independent Scotland. “That’s the vision for me of independence,” she says. “People will want to come back here to be part of building something so if we get city status people will want to come back here or start a life here.”

She does however recognise that some people in Livingston like and value its status as a town.

“I understood the point about remaining a town and being proud of that status,” she says, “but then I thought about it and I thought we’ve got an opportunity here not just to follow the traditional model of what a city is but create a new one and break new ground because that’s what Livingston did as a new town – we broke new ground literally.”

She recognises too that we’re dealing partly with semantics here – there is no legal or agreed definition of the word city – but she does think it can have practical as well as psychological consequences.

“I think what I felt was we have an opportunity to set a new standard of what a city is and I think we are in Scotland about looking to the future, whatever that is, and obviously my politics are my politics.

"I believe in an independent Scotland but also believe in a Scotland being the best it can be and having a good mix of cities towns and villages is really important. We’ve got to a critical mass in Livingston where we’re ready for that.”

She also believes the word “city” could change Livingston’s image as well as the self-image of some of the people who live there.

“I hope it will instill in those who perhaps have a tendency to do down an area to think about it in different terms and the things we have to be proud of. There’s no doubt we have challenges and issues, and we will continue to have challenges and issues , but how do you take them on? Well, you think about how you can be better and how you can build the area up.”

One of the challenges in achieving that, says Bardell, is the tendency of Scots to be suspicious of promoting ourselves.

“It’s a Scottish thing. We don’t like to blow our own trumpet, we’re self-effacing, we do ourselves down – in a humorous way. But we need to get more to grips with who we are and even on a small scale there’s an opportunity to do it. For me, Livingston should and can be the beacon of what a new city and a new Scotland can be about.”

Scotland’s newest city: who’s in with a chance?


The town has campaigned to get city status for more than 20 years and lost out in 2011 so may be one of the frontrunners this time. It has also pitched its bid as Scotland’s most southerly city and was made a royal burgh in the 12th century. The application process asks for well-known people who have connections to the area and famous Dumfries residents include JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, and Robert Burns.


One of two Fife towns bidding to become a city – the other is St Andrews – it has strong royal connections; Robert the Bruce is buried in the Abbey. Seen as one of Europe’s fastest growing towns, with a population of over 50,000 and rising, some consider it a city already. It is in with a serious chance.

South Ayrshire

The most unusual application – although Ayr has applied before – South Ayrshire Council has applied as an entire region and, at 120,000, it certainly has the population of a city. Its application emphasises its history, expanding aeronautics industry and tourist-friendly beaches and villages, but it is probably one of the outliers in the competition.


For many of its residents, Elgin is a city already due to the presence of its cathedral and its status as royal burgh but officially it is still a town. Often feeling overshadowed by Aberdeen to the east and Inverness to the west, official city status from the Queen would be a rubber-stamp of how it already feels.


Like Livingston, Greenock sees its bid as a way to help it regenerate and recover from the post-industrial slump of the 1970s and 80s. Stephen McCabe, leader of Inverclyde Council, said: “We have so much to offer and we want to encourage more people to discover Greenock and Inverclyde as a place to live, work and do business so bidding for city status can only help raise our profile further and potentially open doors.”


The Highland town’s application has emphasised its importance as a transport hub – it has one of the busiest ferry ports in the UK. The town’s leaders also see it as a way of boosting tourism even further – in the summer months, its population grows from 9,000 to over 25,000.

St Andrews

The town’s high profile and history makes it one of the frontrunners. Not only does the application emphasise its status as the home of golf, it is also home of the country’s first university. The civic leaders have argued that civic status would benefit the rest of Fife by attracting visitors beyond golfers or day-trippers from Edinburgh.


The youngster of the bunch – starting as a cluster of villages, the new town was developed in the 1960s as a solution to the overcrowding in Glasgow and has since expanded rapidly. Having struggled with deprivation and the loss of local employers, the leaders of the bid see city status as a means of promoting the community and attracting investment.